KNIGHTSTOWN — A win over Knightstown is always reason for an Eastern Hancock athletic team to celebrate.
That the Royals also won a conference title Wednesday with a victory over their nearest small-school rival was a nice bonus.
The Eastern Hancock wrestling team captured its first-ever Mid-Hoosier Conference crown, beating Indian Creek 43-30 and then the host Panthers 46-29 in the final match of the tri-meet. Knightstown opened the evening with a 50-27 win over Indian Creek.
The Royals are enjoying a resurgence under first-year coach Keith Oliver, a 2002 EH graduate who estimated Wednesday’s win over Knightstown might have been the first in the series since he wore wrestling tights.
“It’s been a while,” said Oliver, a two-time individual sectional champ who helped EH win its last two team titles, in 2001 and 2002. “It could even have been as long as 10 or 12 years ago, so yeah it’s been quite a while.”
Oliver credited the Royals’ senior class with fueling the turnaround, and it was a senior who started a pivotal mid-match EH run against Knightstown.
With the Royals ahead 22-17, Nathan Kell scored an 8-3 decision to give EH a 25-17 edge. Kell, a senior 138-pounder, was one of five Royals to finish 2-0 on the night.
Junior Brandon Ray (145) followed with a victory after his opponent suffered an arm injury and defaulted. Jarrod Waterman, a sophomore 152-pounder, put the Royals up 34-17 by pinning a Panther.
After Knightstown responded with a victory at 160 to close within 34-23, Matt Bowman essentially clinched the EH victory with a win by fall at 170.
Bowman, a sophomore, joined Kell, 113-pound frosh Lucas Mohr and 220-pounder Josh Ramage, a senior, in finishing the evening undefeated for the Royals, who just last month in a holiday tourney at Wapahani trailed Knightstown by 31 points. The Panthers also placed well ahead of the Royals (160 points to 66) at last season’s sectional.
“We made some adjustments since we saw them last,” Oliver said. “We got some kids down to the weights they needed to be.
“The kids have been working hard. I told the kids for the last couple weeks, we’re right there where we need to be getting into sectional time. The next 10 matches we have, I think we can go 10-0. So, yes, I did believe we could win tonight.”
Eastern Hancock’s sectional is Feb. 1 at Shenandoah, and a host of Royals will be contenders for top-four finishes, which secures a regional berth.
Kell improved to 16-6 on the year; Waterman has a team-best 18 wins against just four defeats; Bowman is 11-1; Brent Morris (1-1 Wednesday), is 14-3 at 132; Ramage improved to 12-6; freshman Austin Henderson (1-1 Wednesday) is 12-7 at 106; senior Kenny Delph (1-1 Wednesday) is 15-7 at 195; and senior Hunter Knopp, who sat out against Knightstown with an injury, is 16-5 at 182.
“My senior class, I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids,” Oliver said. “Those guys have really stepped up and started leading in the room. And then the sophomores and the juniors and the freshmen have all bought into it.
“They all know what they’re capable of doing. We’ve been setting high expectations all season long, even though it’s the first year really getting this program going.”
With EH’s past struggles on the mat, Knightstown and Indian Creek have traditionally made the Mid-Hoosier Conference their own — they’re the only two schools in the MHC besides Eastern Hancock with wrestling teams.
Now, the Panthers and Braves have someone else to worry about besides each other.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Oliver said. “We circled this on the calendar and said this is something we want to win. This is kind of the beginning of gearing up for the sectional run, and that’s what we were looking for.
“That’s what we came here expecting to do — to win — and the kids did an excellent job.”
MID-HOOSIER CONFERENCE 3-WAY
>> Wednesday at Knightstown.
Knightstown 50, Indian Creek 27
Eastern Hancock 43, Indian Creek 30
Eastern Hancock 46, Knightstown 29
2-0 finishers for Eastern Hancock: Lucas Mohr (113 pounds), Nathan Kell (138), Jarrod Waterman (152), Matthew Bowman (170), Josh Ramage (220).